Florida Orthodontist Doubles as Turtle Shell Repairman

Hello to all of our biggest cyber space supporters!

We are extremely grateful for the national recognition our center has received as a result of an AOL News Article that was published on March 28th. The response to our story has been overwhelming! Many of you are familiar with “Andre,” a green sea turtle that arrived at our center in June 2010 after experiencing two boat strike injuries. Andre has come a very long way, and continues to receive rehabilitation at Loggerhead Marinelife Center. AOL News Contributor David Moye wrote about the unique orthodontic treatment Andre is receiving to repair his shell.

Please help our center rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles like Andre throughout the year by adopting a turtle for as low as $35. Visit marinelife.org/adopt to learn how you can make a difference. Adopt a sea turtle for yourself, or give a gift that keeps on giving.  We’ve included the article below! For the compete story and photo gallery, click here.

David MoyeDavid Moye Contributor

The best way to fix a broken turtle shell may be to — brace yourself — call in an orthodontist.

That’s what the folks at Loggerhead Marinelife Center — a nonprofit organization in Juno Beach, Fla., that rescues and rehabilitates the area’s sea turtles — did recently to help a green sea turtle named “Andre.”

Last June, Andre suffered two massive injuries from boats that left the inside of his body exposed to the elements. In fact, center veterinarian Dr. Nancy Mettee said the staff had to remove three pounds of sand from inside his body.
“The worst part of it is that his lungs were exposed,” Mettee told AOL News, adding that boat injuries are common to the area’s sea turtles.

“At least 25 percent of stranded turtles are hit by boats,” she said. “That’s not just the propeller. The boat hull can cause just as much damage.

“Usually when a turtle gets stranded, that means it is dying. About 25 to 40 percent of the turtles we’re treating at the center have been hit by boats. We usually treat about 50 to 75 a year, but during the last two years, we’ve gone up to about 100 a year.”

That sounds bad, but Mettee is quick to emphasize that the increased number of turtles at the center is a sign that the network of people looking for shell-shocked turtles is doing its job.

And now that job extends to using orthodontic techniques to fix busted shells.

“Some people are calling it ‘sea turtle orthodontics’ but the technical term is ‘distraction osteogenesis,'” Mettee said. “We are using the forces of pushing and pulling to manipulate bone growth.”

Mettee had been thinking about using orthodontics on sea turtles for a while, but decided in February that Andre was a perfect test case.

“We needed something to create tension in some areas of the carapace [the upper shell] and movement in other areas,” Mettee said. “Orthodontics has this effect within human skulls, so I thought application to a sea turtle’s shell may have similar results.”

A Florida marine life center is using the services of an orthodontist to fix broken turtle shells.

Brittany Jo Miller
A Florida marine life center has teamed with an orthodontist to help repair broken turtle shells – giving injured animals a chance at living healthy lives.

Mettee believes this is the first time orthodontics has been used to help manipulate fractures in a sea turtle’s shell. In order to do it, she needed the help of an actual orthodontist.

Dr. Alberto A. Vargas, who practices in the nearby city of Jupiter, jumped at the chance to treat the under-represented sea turtle community.

“I’d like to help the center as much as possible,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way to support the local community and its natural resources.”

Plus, sea turtles like Andre are better patients than humans in some respects.

“He was very compliant and did what we asked him to,” Vargas said. “He doesn’t move around. On the down side, he doesn’t communicate very well.”

The procedure, which utilizes expanders to help repair a turtle’s shell, can be very economical, with each expander costing less than $5, Mettee said.

“Attachment was a problem, because a green sea turtle has a smooth waxy shell so the first attachments popped off — just like that — from the pressure.”

That was remedied by using UV light and dental ionomer.

“Basically, we use a glue-like substance that goes on like a paste and becomes rock-hard after it’s cured under an ultraviolet light,” Mettee said.

Attaching the expanders took four hours, but the real work is in the day-to-day adjustments.

“We tighten the expanders a quarter of a millimeter each day,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a whole millimeter. We’ll never get complete closure, but the goal is to get the wound down to less than 5 centimeters by May.”

That’s when the center hopes to release Andre back in the wild, and while Vargas hopes to be there with his team, Mettee admits she may not be able to make it for personal reasons.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling setting them free,” she said. “I liken it to my mom, who knows I have a motorcycle, but never wants to see me ride it.”